Radio: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss

As Sean O’Rourke and Pat Kenny settle into their new slots on RTÉ Radio 1 and Newstalk, it’s hard to tell what’s changed

Simon Schama: unflappable charm and erudition. Photograph: Tim Kirby/Oxford Film and Television/BBC

Simon Schama: unflappable charm and erudition. Photograph: Tim Kirby/Oxford Film and Television/BBC

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:00

A mere three weeks into its run, and already Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) has found a formula that works. Unfortunately, it’s the same formula Pat Kenny used during his long tenure in the slot. Be it the mix of subjects – current affairs, consumer reports, interviews and what O’Rourke’s promotional spots chillingly called “a light dusting of fun” – or the supporting cast of talking heads, there is an all-too-familiar feel to the show. (Though, in fairness, the theme tune has been remixed.)

Some continuity between the ancien regime and O’Rourke’s new era is inevitable and at times welcome. Brian O’Connell’s reports on intriguing but overlooked stories from around the country remain. His piece on Tuesday about opposition to a new Islamic education centre in Cork was the springboard for a telling debate between the centre’s director, Farghal Radwan, and a local councillor, Ken O’Flynn, who has received complaints of noise from the centre, and insists religious prejudice plays no part in his opposition.

O’Rourke chaired the debate with customary assurance, eliciting interesting details such as the number of local Muslims who were now registering to vote.

Overall, it was a nuanced snapshot of the issues – and tensions – that have arisen in multicultural Ireland.

Some of the Today show’s old reliables could do with an overhaul, however. Paddy O’Gorman’s report from Navan courthouse followed a well-trodden path: unvarnished interviews with vulnerable people that, for all their grimness and honesty, seem to be served up solely to pique our prurient side rather than highlight any injustice.

Amid such tropes, O’Rourke himself had yet to find the right voice for his new berth. On Monday, when he spoke to the UK blogger Paul Staines and the journalist Noirin Hegarty about news reporting in the digital age, O’Rourke conducted the discussion as though hosting a bulletin. He scrupulously darted between his two guests rather than allowing them set out their stalls at length. Engendering debate on a talkshow requires different skills from those needed on a news programme.

This tendency towards the perfunctory was evident during his encounter with the historian Simon Schama, who was promoting his new book and television series, The Story of the Jews. It was the kind of heavyweight interview his predecessor would have relished, but O’Rourke opened his chat with an interrogatory gambit straight from his old playbook: was Schama’s book “really 40 years in the making?”

After a while, however, the pair hit a groove, largely thanks to Schama’s unflappable charm and erudition. He was particularly pithy when drawing comparisons between Jewish suffering and Irish historical traumas. “This is still the great issue of the Enlightenment,” he said. “How do people of opposing beliefs get on with each other without killing each other?” The newsman in O’Rourke must have appreciated such a soundbite.

O’Rourke gave hints of the personality that has yet to find full expression in his new gig, most notably in the easy way he gave way to laughter at Schama’s answer about whether Jews were pessimistic: “When was the last time you saw a Woody Allen film?” O’Rourke’s professional rigour is as strong as ever, but to leave a distinctive stamp he may want to give freer rein to his emotional instincts.

Moving the dial, so to speak, there were times last week on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) when the presenter sounded freer to express himself in his new home. On Wednesday, when he spoke to the health-insurance broker Dermot Goode, Kenny gave full vent to his spleen on hearing that hospitals could soon charge private-policy holders the full cost of staying in a public ward, even if they are unable to find a bed in a private one.

Cranking his outrage up to Daily Mail-editorial levels, Kenny spluttered that such a charge would be “robbery”, “theft” and “an obscenity”. Such a development indeed seems unfair to health-insurance holders. But for Kenny to call it an obscenity suggests a lapse in perspective.

As it was, the intrusion of right-leaning editorialising into a consumer item with a not-entirely-disinterested guest – Goode’s business depends on people buying insurance – marked a jolting change from the more calibrated environment of Kenny’s previous bailiwick.

Not that Kenny has lost his formidable skills as a presenter. Tuesday’s discussion on the forthcoming budget was a masterclass in juggling complex issues, conflicting viewpoints and competing voices, as he moderated a spirited exchange between no less than three economists.

It was also a sign of how the political and fiscal climate has changed, with all three guests saying the Government should cut less than the proposed €3.1 billion. Inevitably there were differences in approach between Marie Sherlock of Siptu and Fergal O’Brien of Ibec, while Jim Power of Friends First proposed a middle path that, strangely, sounded the most maverick.

As for the discussion, it sounded like old times, just in different surroundings. Far from refreshing the airwaves, Kenny’s move has so far meant more of the same.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

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